Recently I had the opportunity to interview Bob King from Humanscale for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.

Bob King is the CEO and Founder of Humanscale, the leading manufacturer in office ergonomics. The brand specializes in innovative products that improve the health and comfort of worklife; sit/stand desks, seating, computer supports, lighting as well as healthcare solutions including medication delivery and point of care carts. King first received his Bachelor of Science in economics from Boston University and an MBA from Columbia University before launching Humanscale, which maintains its corporate headquarters in New York City with 40 offices and four direct-owned factories worldwide. King is personally committed to conservation and preserving and protecting the environment for future generations. Humanscale is leading its industry with material transparency through the elimination of toxins and environmentally harmful processes and is committed to having a net positive impact on the environment. In 2016, Humanscale was the first manufacturer to meet the requirements of the Living Product Challenge — the most rigorous standard for sustainable manufacturing.

Krish Chopra: What are the 3 most important values that your company’s culture is based on?

Bob King:

a)Employee health and well-being — We aim to create a healthy place to work that is free of Red-Listed chemicals and toxins, the same as the products we create. As we are leaders in ergonomic solutions for the workplace, we are fortunate to be able to provide our own team with an environment that encourages activity, movement and collaboration.

b) Setting high expectations — I think people are often capable of much more than they think. Set high expectations and provide people with the tools to achieve them. This energizes them and creates confidence when they realize just what they can do. It is also the key to driving innovative thinking, which propels our company and our products.

c) Respect and appreciation — Whether it’s our staff, our vendors or our customers, we treat everyone with respect and make sure they feel as though their opinion/contribution is valued and appreciated. I personally make sure that I am accessible and approachable to everyone so I can learn what’s going on in the company and what the challenges are — whether it’s people in the factory, on the line, in the office or in the field. It’s the right thing to do and a great business practice.

Krish: Managing millennials can often be a polarizing topic. Can you elaborate on your advice for managing the “millennial mindset?”

Bob: a) This generation is inspired by doing good things. It is important to put programs in place for social good to help them achieve fulfillment and satisfaction. As an example, Jane Abernethy, Humanscale’s Sustainability Officer and I designated interdepartmental “Sustainability Champions” to lead our social and environmental initiatives. They learn about what we do and work to educate our staff as well as designers, customers and vendors to the types of things we are doing and our goals towards making a net positive impact. Our Champions also coordinate projects that engage with the greater community such as factory tours and hand-printing activities at our Piscataway, New Jersey manufacturing facility.

b) Create a mentorship program. We instituted a 1:1 program, pairing a new employee with someone a bit more senior, but not their manager. This accelerates the junior person’s learning process and integrates them into the organization more quickly. It is also great for the mentor as it is often the first step into management — and there is always something to learn from the younger demographic.

Krish: What are your “5 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Culture” and why.

Bob: a) Do great things that inspire people: Whether it’s providing education to impoverished children or leading your industry in protecting our planet as we do. Most companies do small things that are convenient and low cost. But if you do something really impactful, you can inspire your co-workers, customers and community. As an example, for the past decade Humanscale has taken a leadership role in partnering with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to preserve and restore the once rich ecosystem of the Eastern Plains in Cambodia, a 1.5-million-acre area suffering from intense poaching. As a WWF board member for nearly 20 years, this cause was obviously near and dear to me, but I decided to make it a cause for the entire company to get behind. We’ve found our employees have not only been interested to learn more about our work with WWF, but they are our greatest spokespeople and have helped spread awareness about protecting wildlife. Aligning ourselves with WWF was also very much in line with our sustainability philosophy and has bolstered our resolve toward transforming the manufacturing industry. Our goal is to make a net positive impact in everything we do.

b) Stand by your core values and beliefs: Make sure everyone understands and follows your company’s core values and beliefs. This will of course include how we treat everyone we interact with including colleagues, customers, vendors and even competitors. It’s also very important that a company’s fundamental beliefs and values are reflected in the products they create. For example, one of our core beliefs is that we exist as a company only by meeting high expectations in every facet of operations. Whether it’s product design, sales, or corporate, I expect everyone to understand that both large and small details matter, every day. As a result of cultivating this mindset, I can proudly state that our products and services are unmatched in design, quality, and execution.

c) Communicate: Communicate the brand’s core values and a clear vision of the future to everyone in the company on a regular basis. I do this whenever I meet with the individual groups around the company, and I have an all-hands conference call every quarter that everyone listens in on. I also personally wrote a 60-page book called “Our Story” for all of our employees. It details the stories behind Humanscale, our products and our mission. This is a key tool our sales people use day in and day out.

d) Be prepared to set a great example: If you want your sales team to present a product or concept a certain way, practice doing it yourself until you are great at it. Then make a committed effort to get out in front of customers with your sales staff to show them how you want it to be done. I travel every month to assist our sales team on pitches to corporate clients.

e) Make an annual plan: Make sure everyone has a plan for the year of what they want to achieve and when in order to reach their year-end goals. For example, a junior level employee should look to improve his/her performance and expand his/her job capabilities. Goals within Humanscale can range from learn to install more products; improve your customer service ability; expand your customer relationships; get higher scores on questionnaires; enroll in educational opportunities provided by your company, etc. This plan should be developmental and specific enough that if they follow it closely — it will guarantee success. It’s important to monitor these goals to make sure everyone is on track.

Krish: Strong company culture is something that everyone likes to think they have but very few have it. Why do so many organizations struggle with creating strong, healthy work environments?

Bob: It is important to think long term. It can be compelling to make short-term decisions that go against the culture you are trying to create — for cost or convenience reasons. That is why it’s particularly hard for public corporations to create strong cultures because they have to report quarterly results. We are fortunate that we are privately held and can make decisions based on much longer timelines — I often take a 10–20 year view rather than 3 months. For example, our company is built on providing healthy, sustainable, ergonomic products. We don’t use Red-List chemicals like formaldehyde and are the only company in the industry that doesn’t use vinyl and Chrome 6 in any of our products. Taking Red-Listed Chemicals out of our tabletops means they will have to cost 30% more than those of our competitors with these chemicals. Like it or not that will result in significantly lower sales in the short term. But it demonstrates to our people that our core values are more important than short-term profits. Doing these things may seem expensive and inconvenient, but to me, it makes it clear that we stand by and are committed to our values. All the carefully crafted rhetoric in the world will have no impact on creating a corporate culture unless it’s backed up with deeds and actions.

Krish: What is one mistake you see a young start-up founders make in their culture or leadership practices?

Bob: Start-ups are often so driven by short term financial results and requirements that they lose sight of their core values and what their company ultimately stands for. When I was young, I didn’t have enough time to communicate with my staff — everyone was just focused on getting the job done. I just assumed they had the same values I had, but was later shocked to learn that they often didn’t. Even young entrepreneurs need to first think about what their company stands for and what their core values are and then communicate those values clearly to everyone from the very beginning. How well you do this will determine how effective you are as a leader and how to build an inspired, intensely loyal team.

Krish: To add to the previous question, young CEOs often have a lot of pressure to perform and often wear many hats. What’s a simple time efficient strategy they can start doing today to improve their company’s culture?

Bob: Give a lot of thought to the culture you want to create. Put it down in writing. Create a “living document.” You can change it as things evolve, but be sure to then talk about it at regular meetings. Talk about your company culture and values in your everyday conversations with your staff, customers, and vendors.

Krish: Success leaves clues. What has been your biggest influence in your leadership strategy and company culture?

Bob: Niels Diffrient — He was an American industrial designer and a pioneer of ergonomic seating. Niels and I met in 1997 at a time when I was talking to designers about developing our first chair. I actually searched him out because I had asked many people how to adjust their chair and no one knew how to do it. I was looking to develop a chair that was easy to use and he was known as one of the great chair designers of the world. As we were talking, we realized we shared many of the same beliefs and both valued simplicity and ease of use. He made me realize that those things are not simply product attributes but core values that can elevate design and inspire not only designers and engineers but our entire organization and elevate product design far above what would normally be possible. During one visit to his studio, he had a prototype of a chair that was upside down. He was explaining how the bottom of the chair looked and why it looked that way. This didn’t really interest me. I was more interested turning it over. That’s when Niels explained that the bottom needs to be as carefully and elegantly designed as any other part of the product. I said, “But no one sees it.” His response was, “Bob, we see it.” He taught me that function and simplicity can go together. Always put function first. If you solve a functional problem as simply and elegantly as you possibly can, the form that flows from that process will not only be beautiful, but timeless. He taught me about integrity.

Krish: What advice do you have for employees that have bad bosses? How can they take control and improve a bad situation?

Bob: Don’t quit. As we go through our careers we will have good bosses and bad bosses. If we quit every time we had a bad boss, it would make a mess of our career and resume. Think of a boss as a customer. Your job is to build a strong ongoing and profitable relationship with this person. Find out what their needs, hopes and dreams are and work to satisfy them.

Krish: Okay, we made it! Last question — what’s one unique hack you or your company does that has enhanced your work culture?

Bob: Except for myself, the CMO and our legal department, we don’t have private offices. The corporate teams work out in the open, on the floor, although we have conference rooms for private phone calls and quiet spaces. This fosters collaboration. Everyone is in touch with each other and setting a good example. Everyone knows what is going on. And most importantly, everyone realizes they are all on the same team.

A note to the readers: Improving company culture happens at any level in an organization. If you learned one thing in this interview, please share this with someone close to you.

A special thanks to Bob King again!

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  • Krish Chopra

    2x entrepreneur and founder of NP Hub. Let’s discuss leadership, scaling, and relationships to serve communities that need more support! In ATL

    Krish Chopra is the founder of NPHub. He believes in two truths: everything is a learnable skill and real leadership involves caring for others. Krish’s mission is to better support underserved communities and he and his team are currently serving the nursing industry so students have more resources to graduate on-time. He’s also contributes to major publications such as Forbes, Fast Company, and Inc., and has been featured in a dozen more.